Several friends have emailed me and asked me for a blog update, and I had to tell them that I had not yet gone far enough along the process of adjusting to give a fair assessment of my headspace. For folks who have not undergone significant changes in their lives (like, moved to an extremely different country), they might not be really familiar with the process of cultural adjustment called “Culture Shock.” It takes a fair bit of metacognition to realize you are going through it and the phase you are in, but experienced International Teachers are experts at it. However, it doesn’t make it any easier, although it makes it go by quicker and makes it seem a lot less threatening.
The first stage of Culture Shock is Excitement, and is indicated by these hallmarks:
. You feel very positive about the culture
. You are overwhelmed with impressions
. You find the new culture exotic and are fascinated by everything about it
. You are passive, meaning you have little experience of the culture other than as an observer
Some people who wander all their lives (or backpackers who roam around different countries, only spending a few days in each) enjoy the noncommittal thrill of this stage. There is certainly a starry-eyed wonder about it, but you really cannot function very well at this level for long. Soon afterwards (from a few days to a few weeks), you enter the next stage, where things start getting tough:
When the little nagging things that you are used to doing without thought become nigh impossible and the inconvenience begins to chew on you, you enter the stage of Withdrawal. What should be simple tasks, like finding your way to a bank, pumping gas, finding a candy bar, crossing the street with a walk signal, become so frustrating that you just don’t want to do them any more.
The hallmarks of this stage are:
. You find the behavior of the people unusual and unpredictable
. You begin to dislike the culture and react negatively to the behaviors
. You feel anxious enough that you don’t want to go out in public
. You start to withdraw, often thinking about how glad you’d be to quit that job, or leave that place.
. You begin to criticize, mock or show animosity to the people. There’s a better way to do things…why don’t they just do it that way??
I have met people who never got through this stage because they did not expect it. On a flight from Congo to the US for Christmas break, I met a couple who were fleeing their jobs in Togo. They had abandoned their car, all their possessions and their friends and were flying back to Seattle. They told about how the country was absolutely intolerable, how nothing worked the way it should, how they felt so isolated and threatened, and how they hated the school, the people, the country and their colleagues so badly that it was worth walking away from their profession to get back to the USA. I didn’t ask them why they had left home in the first place, but I’m sure they soon remembered once the thrill of being home wore off.
People experienced with Culture Shock know that he best way to get through this stage is both by being patient, and working hard to let go of your ego and learn the local culture.
Once you start feeling ‘reborn’ and used to the new protocols in your new country, things get a LOT better. You begin the real process of adjustment and growth, and you enter the stage called Adjustment. You start to acquire some language skills, learn the local customs, earn some friends, and appreciate the differences between your home culture and your new culture. Things that seemed asinine before begin to make sense in a way that you wonder how there was ever any other way to do it.
The hallmarks of this phase are:
. You begin to understand and accept the behavior of the people
. You feel less isolated, and start to enjoy doing things with people from outside your home culture
. You regain your sense of humor
The final stage lasts for years, and reflects that you have finally let go of your old ego and are becoming a full-fledged member of the new culture, feeling ‘at home’ in your new environment. It is called Enthusiam, and has these benchmarks:
. You enjoy being in the culture
. You function well in the culture
. You prefer certain cultural traits of the new culture rather than your own, and you can evaluate traits unbiasedly on their own merit
. You adopt certain behaviors from the new culture.
Where am I?
Personally, I am already well through the first stage in my personal life. The similarity of many things with Congo meant that I was never really enamored with every little thing, and in fact, some of the things (the squalor, the visual appearance, the disorganization) are so similar to Congo that they actually left me apprehensive so I never was in the ‘excitement’ phase. The thrill of having my own little house within walking distance has already faded and has been replaced with the challenges of making it comfortable for me.
With work, I am still a bit jazzed…I’m having such a good time with my coworkers, learning a ton about the technology associated with my job, that I do get ‘irrationally exuberant’ at times. I’m certainly at the base level of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
In many ways, I know I am mostly already in the Withdrawal stage. I find the challenges of getting downtown or even connecting with my colleagues for a drink so much that I just come home and surf the net instead. The power here goes off and on pretty constantly….like a brownout every 20 minutes and a full blown power outage every few hours…so it’s legitimately frustrating trying to feel unhassled and secure.
But I am pushing through it, and taking the proper steps to do so. I’m looking at buying a car soon so I can get beyond these four square blocks where I spend all my time, and get outside Ouaga to realize that there is more to Burkina Faso than a crowded, dirty and disorganized city. I am having curtains made for my house so that I put a personal feel in it, but also so that it starts to look like the home of an adult and not some college student. I am working hard to improve my French….I am already at the point where I will chat easily with anyone, unafraid to show that I am a basic speaker of the language. I seem to make myself understood and I get the hang of what they are telling me, so it must be going OK. I still am feeling quite lonely, and wonder how I will deal without things that I have always felt were essential to my soul….rivers, woods, blue skies, comfortable home, old friends….but I also know that soon I will adjust so that I can function well without these things immediately available.
So really…how is it going? It’s going. I’m learning tons about my work and I like the people I work with, and I know they like me. I really like my co-workers and one of them told me today that they all agreed with each other that I’m fun to work with. I appreciate that, for sure. I’m beginning to find my way around…not only do I know the 4-block route to walk to school, but I also know the way to walk to the teacher housing, the other admin housing, and even the direction to go downtown (although it’s much too far to walk). And getting to work without getting my shoes and pants all muddy is sort of old hat. I’ve had a few very precious moments….one of the other admin and I spent an evening at his house, polishing off a bottle of Macallan, watching golf on TV, talking about our travels and experiences. My colleagues already regularly call on me for tech support, which I am able to do, so I feel valuable and appreciated.
My house still sucks, to be honest. I’ve had dinners at the homes of two other admin, and they have SUCH nice places it’s hard not to be jealous. White tile floors, swimming pools, marble statues, backup generators, green yards with beautiful landscaping, bright open spaces and big windows. My place still feels like a tiny prison cell, with 10 foot walls and razor wire, and cheap furniture and weirdly shaped and oriented rooms. I know the school is trying to be budget-conscious and they didn’t want to put me into teacher housing (which is MUCH nicer than mine) so they found this place last minute. The location can’t be beat, but a top priority for me is to get it fixed up. It doesn’t even have towel racks or toilet paper holders, and the front door won’t latch.
Anyway…the process continues. I meet the full staff in a couple of days so my work responsibilities are taking most of my time, so I’ll have another update in a few weeks where I will hopefully feel much more ‘at home’ in my home, and have some stories about entering the third stage of cultural adjustment. All it takes is time.